The COVID-19 novel coronavirus is causing disruption to the whole world. Asian countries and cities such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea were predicted to be the riskiest thanks to their vicinity and close ties to Mainland China. In order to stabilize the situation efficiently and effectively, various technologies have been adopted by the Asian countries in flighting the coronavirus. The so far promising results may shed some lights on viable tactics for countries now facing the heat.
Despite their respective high perceived risks, Taiwan and Singapore have not adopted the dramatic lockdown approach, while have still been able to keep the case numbers at a comparatively low level. As of 15 March 2020, Taiwan has 51 confirmed cases, and Singapore 212. With the situation stabilized, citizens in Taiwan and Singapore are now gradually returning to normal life. Schools are open, and masks are not always necessary. The encouraging results are achieved by the “containment” strategy of the two countries from the very beginning. By identifying and quarantining the COVID-19 patients and their close contacts speedily, both countries have been able to halt the spread of the virus to the rest of the population.
The Taiwan Government leveraged on its citizens’ household registration system, national health insurance database, immigration and customs database and the entry cards of overseas travellers to track high-risk individuals with recent travel history in affected areas. All hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies in Taiwan are also granted access to the citizens’ travel histories. Real-time alerts would be generated during a clinical visit based on travel history and clinical symptoms.
In just a couple of days, “Patient 31”, the “super-spreader”, who is a member of the Shincheonji Church in South Korea, caused a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in the country, from just a handful to a few thousands. Armed with the experience from the MERS outbreak in 2015, the South Korean government has been able to response quickly and decisively to mitigate the situation. Instead of locking down the whole country, South Korea adopted the “Trace, test and treat” strategy by testing people for the virus at the fastest pace in the world. Drive-through clinics and mobile testing stations are established throughout the country. The virus test is free for citizens and travellers, and the test results are available within just a few hours. As of 13 March 2020, 250,000 tests has been conducted by KCDC. Within two weeks’ time, South Korea has managed to reduce the daily case number from over a thousand to around a hundred; and an overall mortality rate at 0.77%, which is far below the 3.4% global average.  South Korea is a great example that with appropriate and decisive measures, it is possible for countries can turn around the situation.
The South Korean government also publishes the movements of the confirmed cases by retracing their steps using tools such as GPS phone tracking, credit card records, surveillance video and personal interviews with the patients, via a central website, an interactive map, and also regional text messages, so as to alert people if they have crossed paths with carriers, or are getting close to a high risk location. The measures are effective in controlling the virus spread, despite raising concerns on personal privacy.
Similarly, the Chinese Government has launched a “close contact meter” app (密切接觸者測量儀) to facilitate the citizens to check if they have come in close contact with a confirmed coronavirus carrier. The users only need to enter their names and ID card numbers to find out if they have taken the same flight, train or bus with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.
After over a month of lockdown of the country, China started to loosen the quarantine measures to let citizens to resume work. In order to monitor the people’s health status in an effective manner, and avoid bottleneck at travel hubs during health checks, Alibaba launched a new “Health Code’ app to let the citizens declare their health status by answering a simple questionnaire, as well as log their locations at major check points, such as train stations and highway toll stations. Alibaba will use the information provided by the users, as well as big data to determine the risk level of the individual. The app uses a colour code system – green means the user is healthy and can roam around without restrictions, while yellow and red mean that the user will be restricted to travel and are required to go through seven or fourteen days of quarantine respectively.  Inevitably, there are concerns about the privacy and security of the app, and if the Chinese government will abuse the surveillance capability after the virus situation stabilises.
In a slightly relaxed manner, Singapore suggests its citizens to log their locations voluntarily by scanning QR codes using their mobile devices in taxis, office lobbies, tourist attractions and colleges etc. The scans would allow the authorities to reverse engineer a citizens’ whereabouts in case they fall ill or come into contact with a patient.
Telemedicine and AI
A couple of Asian countries have started to adopt telemedicine measures to treat patients more efficiently, as well as prevent cross-contamination during this high risk period.
Starting from late February 2020, more than 3,000 medical institutions, including hospitals and clinics in Taiwan offer telemedicine service for people in isolation as part of the country’s COVID-19 response measures. The initiative was implemented by the Taiwan Ministry of Health and Welfare for people in home isolation and quarantine, to allow them to seek medical advice remotely. After the virtual consultation with a medical physician, family members or a designated person of the patient can collect the medicine from the designated clinic or hospital by presenting the patient’s national health insurance card.
The tech giants in China also mobilised their resources to help during the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Online clinic service was launched by Alibaba for users in Hubei province in January 2020. The service was later extended to Beijing. Free online medical consultation services were also provided by Baidu and Tencent for Chinese citizens.
To lessen the doctors’ burden as well as speed up the diagnoses , Alibaba’s research arm developed a new AI (artificial intelligence) algorithm to analyse computerised tomography (CT) scans. The company claims that its AI can identify the different types of pneumonia within 20 seconds, with an accuracy rate up to 96%. The algorithm was first introduced in early March 2020 in 26 hospitals and will be made available to more than 100 hospitals in China in the coming weeks.
Singapore tries out the use of telepresence robots in isolation wards to facilitate basic day-to-day communications between medical professionals and the patients. The robot allows the doctors or nurses to see the patient via a camera on the machine, and vice versa. Such measure can reduce the unnecessary risk of exposure to healthcare professionals as well as enhance the efficiency of the examination routine. If the patient’s condition is stable, the hospital can also use less PPEs (personal protective equipment), which are now in short supply due to the global outbreak.
Robotics, Drones, Chatbots and Wearables
In order to reduce the risks of medical professionals contracting the virus while taking care of the patients, hospitals in South Korea, Taiwan and China have turned to robotics for a solution. The countries are gradually deploying robots for medicine and meal delivery, medical waste collection, temperature measurement, as well as sterilisation of wards in hospitals.
JD.com (京東), the Chinese online retailer, has been sending out autonomous vehicles to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and households in Wuhan. Meituan Dianping （美團點評）, the Chinese equivalent of UberEats, also launched a “contactless delivery” by using autonomous vehicles to send grocery orders to customers in quarantine in major Chinese cities.
The Chinese are also being creative with the use of drones. Local police have been using drones to patrol and promote healthy behaviors. Citizens not wearing masks properly on the street are nudged to go back home. Drones are used to deliver packages, check body temperatures of citizens in isolation at home, and carry out disinfection tasks at remote areas as well.
More recently, the Chinese police also started to use AI-powered smart helmets which can automatically take pedestrians’ temperatures as they patrol the streets amid the coronavirus crisis. Helmets that are equipped with facial-recognition capability can also display the pedestrian’s personal information, such as their name, on a virtual screen inside the headgear.  The technology may appear to be effective to some, but big brother to others.
To improve the communciations with the public, the Taiwan CDC deploys it’s Line chatbot 「疾管家」(LineID ＠taiwancdc) to help disseminate accurate information about COVID-19, share healthcare good practices and also let the citizens check the real-time local surgical mask supplies information in their vicinity.
In South Korea, the government has rolled out a “Self-Quarantine Safety Protection” tracking app to keep track of around 30,000 people in self-quarantine due to recent travel history, or being a close-contact of a confirmed patient. Leveraging on GPS tracking, if the quarantine subject travels out of the permitted area, the app will send a mobile alert to the individual as well as their government case officer. Those in quarantine can also use the app to report their status updates and if they have shown any symptoms to the officials. The use of the app is voluntary. Given the large amount of self-quarantine people, the technology helps to ease the burden on the human resources of the local government. 
In mid February 2020, the Taiwan government launched the Entry Quarantine System to allow travellers entering the country to complete the health declaration form by scanning a QR code, either prior to departure from or upon arrival at a Taiwan airport. A mobile health declaration pass would then be sent via SMS to phones using a local telecom operator, which allowed for faster immigration clearance for those with minimal risk. Hong Kong has since launched a similar electronic quarantine form for inbound travellers as well.
The COVID-19 outbreak has caused major global disruptions. No one has the perfect answer for this unforeseen challenge and we can only learn by trial and error. The experience of the Asian countries so far demonstrated that when the governments and their people start to take the situation seriously, and deploy appropriate and timely measures, the situation can be managed. Every individual, each small step, count. Let’s make a concerted effort to mitigate the situation.